Several years ago, Robert Piehler flew in a World War II B-24 bomber as part of the well-known Wings of Freedom tour out of the Laconia Airport.
The Alexandria man acknowledged it was a risk to fly in a military plane more than 70 years old alongside his wife and a friend. But he wanted to experience the flights his father took during the war as a mechanic in a B-25.
The risk became more apparent last October after a B-17G bomber owned by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation crashed at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, killing seven, including five passengers, the pilot and co-pilot.
Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled the foundation can no longer charge the public for passenger flights. The tour likely won’t be making any stops in New Hampshire this year as a result of the decision, according to the organization.
“I wouldn’t have a problem going again,” Piehler said. “I’m just that kind of person.”
The B-17 plane had flown out of Laconia and Nashua just a few days before the deadly crash. The tour is well-known across New Hampshire with events over the years at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in Keene and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, among other airports.
The crash in Connecticut occurred as the plane tried to return to the airport shortly after takeoff. The plane burst into flames and sent up a large plume of smoke that could be seen for miles. Thirteen people were aboard the plane — three crew members and 10 passengers.
Last week, the FAA rescinded an exemption that allowed the organization to charge passengers for flights in the historical aircraft, which it has done for more than 30 years. The FAA says the foundation failed to train the crew chief aboard the flight, properly inspect engines and comply with its safety and risk management program.
“The FAA continues to gather facts that indicate Collings lacked a commitment to safety, insofar as Collings did not take seriously its safety management system program,” Robert C. Carty, deputy executive director of Flight Standards Service wrote in the March 25 finding. “Based on the totality of facts the FAA has gathered, granting an extension to Collings’ current authority to operate and permitting Collings to add an aircraft to its exemption would adversely affect safety.”
In an interview with the FAA on March 2, “the crew chief verified that he received no initial training and was unaware of basic information concerning operations under the exemption,” the report reads.
Inspection of the engines on the B-17 “established magneto and ignition failures existed,” the report reads.
The pilot also served as the director of maintenance, “as a result, Collings did not have a structure to ensure adequate oversight of his decisions to conduct passenger-carrying operations such as the October 2 flight,” the report reads.
Hunter Chaney, director of marketing for the foundation, said they’re reviewing the decision and evaluating options.
“We look forward to discussing with the FAA its decision findings that were not addressed with the Foundation before the issuance of the FAA decision,” he wrote in a statement. “Through 30 years of passenger carrying operations, and until the October 2, 2019 accident, the Wings of Freedom tour had never had an accident, injury or fatality. This record reflects a commitment to safety that has proudly set a standard among the Warbird community for generations. The Foundation has always held safety as its top priority.”
During Wings of Freedom Tour stops, the planes are open for ground tours and people can pay to take 30-minute rides on the historic planes. The cost of the flights typically range between $425 and $475.
The B-17G bomber that crashed was built in 1944. The Collings Foundation bought it in 1986 and restored it from a firefighting plane to its World War II configuration, painting it in the image of the Nine-O-Nine, a bomber that flew 140 combat missions in Europe.
Piehler said the B-17 was grounded because of engine trouble the day he went on a flight back in 2018.
“Being a history buff, I think it’s removing an opportunity for those who are willing to take a chance,” he said.